Thursday, March 27, 2008

Golden Compass Books: The Subtle Knife

The Subtle Knife is book two in the Golden Compass trilogy. The plot is complicated, so I will boil it down to a few essentials: a boy named Will from goes in search of his missing explorer father. As he does so, he discovers a window into a parallel universe. He enters, finds a depopulated city and meets Lyra, who has also entered this world from another. (We remember her as the girl heroine of the first book.) Will and Lyra have a series of adventures as Will searches for his father and Lyra pursues the secret of the mysterious Dust (consciousness) that is of grave concern to the Church in her world. In the midst of their travels between parallel universes, Will and Lyra enter a tower where Will fights for what turns out to be the "subtle knife." This is an extraordinary weapon that can slice through any metal. It also can cut windows between the universes. As the bearer of the knife, Will wields great power.

In this volume, we get more hints that the Church from Lyra's world is evil. While this church is not the Roman Catholic Church (this is after all a different universe) the parallels are obvious. There is no pope, but there is an inquisition and highly centralized control through a Magisterium and various councils. This Church, which worships The Authority (what we would call God) is preoccupied with eradicating sin, which it associates with Dust (consciousness). It will go to any lengths to rid its world of sin. What it identifies as sin are attributes such as free will, freedom, thought, transparency and individual growth and empowerment. In fact, the Church demonstrates that it is willing to rob people of their humanity and turn them into mindless zombies if this is what it takes to eradicate sin.

Clearly, the real Roman Catholic church has had problems with abuse of power. It's an easy target because its failings have been so glaring. But the novel suppresses all the good done by Catholicism in order to paint the institution as wholly evil. We never see this parallel church feeding the poor, caring for the dying, helping the handicapped, speaking out for the oppressed in Third World countries, calling for world peace or the abolition of the death penalty or any of the wonderful works that the Catholic Church has and is currently doing. Of course, you may say, this a work of fiction and the author can do what he wishes with his church in a parallel universe, but the distortion bothers me. I fear it plays on the kind of unexamined cultural assumptions (such as religion painted as the impediment to freedom and progress) that we explored in the Galileo series. I fear that the young people reading these books will buy into a distortion and become unduly hostile to an institution and faith that, like humans themselves, is imperfect but not evil. And this bothers me, in large part because it's so insidious.

Why is there such a focus on what is bad in Catholicism? What do you think?

No comments: